Proms premiere – Luca Francesconi: Duende


Luca Francesconi

Leila Josefowicz (violin), BBC Symphony Orchestra / Susanna Mälkki (Prom 13)

Duration: 20 minutes

BBC iPlayer link

What’s the story behind the piece?

Leila Josefowicz playing Duende Photo (c) Chris Christodoulou

“Historically”,– says Luca Francesconi, “duende is the demon of flamenco. As Federico Garcìa Lorca explains, it is a subterranean force of unheard-of power that escapes rational control. To recover a primitive force in the instrument that perhaps most embodies the history of the West it is necessary to make a perilous descent into the underworld of dark notes, or a flight beyond the orbit of the earth. Which amounts to the same thing. Extremely difficult. But without duende we remain bolted to the ground.”

The work, for violin and orchestra, is a joint commission from the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra, the Orchestra Sinfonica Nazionale della RAI and the BBC Symphony Orchestra.

Leila Josefowicz, the violin soloist, has expanded on ‘duende’. “We acknowledged that we both have Duende, which cannot be learned…this is something we knew we could share with the world, he with his composition and me being the interpreter and musical messenger. I appreciate his incredible musical imagination, his scores bursting with colour and drama”.

Did you know?

Francesconi, born in 1956, has studied with both Karlheinz Stockhausen and Luciano Berio. His chamber opera Quartett, about the end of the world, was heard at the Royal Opera House in 2014.

Initial verdict

This is a striking piece, right from the start, where the violin begins with some feather light string crossing at a very high pitch, seemingly evoking night time insects or other sounds. There are some incredibly taxing passages for the instrument early on, which Josefowicz is completely equal to.

There is some frenetic activity both from violin and orchestra, but at around 7 minutes in the violin really soars, making a rather beautiful sound easily audible even above the glinting, treble-heavy accompaniment.

Around 13’10” there is a notable gear change, the violin digging in for some seriously virtuosic and demonic passages. Then at around 17” a slow, nocturnal atmosphere asserts itself, with various whistles and clicks from the violin to long-held notes from the orchestra.

I found it a little more difficult to hold attention with the piece in the closing stages, but it is doubtful that is the fault of the composer. A second hearing will confirm!

Second hearing


Where can I hear more?

You can watch a performance of the Piano Concerto no.2, completed in 2013, below:

Proms premieres – Birmingham Contemporary Music Group


Birmingham Contemporary Music Group

Proms premieres – Johannes Schöllhorn, Shiori Usui, Betsy Jolas and Joanna Lee
Ulrich Heinen (cello), Hilary Summers (contralto), Birmingham Contemporary Music Group / Franck Ollu (Proms Saturday Matinee 1)

BBC iPlayer link

What’s the story behind the pieces?

Four Proms premieres in one concert here, given by the ever-enterprising Birmingham Contemporary Music Group. They begin with Johannes Schöllhorn’s arrangements of three Boulez Notations, plus a transcription for ensemble of a fragment from each of the thirteen originals – one bar from each, in fact! The arrangements are Notations 2, 11 & 10, while the collage is La treizième.

Shiori Usui’s piece has an extremely macabre background, and is not for the faint-hearted! Ophiocordyceps unilateralis s.l. is a nasty little fungus – as in an infectious fungus that completely eats up the ants that are unfortunate enough to capture it. Usui was struck by an image of one in a nature magazine, and this gave her the sounds she wanted to create.

Betsy Jolas, meanwhile, says of Wanderlied in an onstage interview that “I was trying to make the listeners imagine an old woman going from town to town as a storyteller”. The old woman in this case is a cello, accompanied by the instrumental ensemble – and we are warned of a ‘surprise’ at the end.

Finally Joanna Lee’s Hammer of Solitude, for singer and ensemble. This was written with Boulez in mind, and when she looked at individual movement titles of his she was taken to writing about the poet and novelist Sylvia Plath, and her life, using text by Rory Malarkey. This is a bleak piece indeed, for Lee chooses to devote the last of the three songs to Plath’s suicide.

Did you know?

The Birmingham Contemporary Music Group has premiered over 160 works in its 27-year existence. It was born from the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra in 1987.

Initial verdict

Johannes SchöllhornNotations 2, 11 & 10; La treizième


An energetic set of pieces, benefiting from incredibly well drilled performances. With sharp phrases, these brief thoughts are distilled into really short paragraphs, with only the briefest period of relaxation. There is a wonderful rumble on the bass drum to finish La treizième, which is a great concept if rather difficult to follow!

Shiori Usui Ophiocordyceps unilateralis s.l.


Drawing by Fumio Obata

Usui has certainly picked a grisly but rather captivating subject for a new composition, and given the scenario the music is very vivid – uncomfortably so in fact!

There is a striking, bluesy clarinet solo midway through, but, but by this time the ant appears to be giving up the ghost.

Then we hear some very ominous loud brass with a thumping bass drum, before macabre sounds signal the beginning of the end for the ant. Usui captures the forest and its clicks and murmurs with some imaginative scoring, while also conveying the really grotesque side of Mother Nature.

Betsy JolasWanderlied (from 21:28)


The cello feels restless from the beginning of this piece, while the rest of the ensemble appear to be painting the picture of a wider expanse, through which the old woman is travelling.

Not surprisingly the old woman takes the lead in the conversation throughout, and is very expressive. Its tone of speech is very much in the human range

The ‘surprise’ appears to be a form of hidden track, where the audience think the music has stopped, and begin to applaud, and then find that it hasn’t.

Joanna LeeHammer of Solitude


The first song, Hammer Alone In The House, features a very distinctive half spoken / half sung vocal from the alto, above some atmospheric orchestral colouring. The Love Song has a little more tenderness, but The Suicide is much less forgiving. It is surely very difficult to portray such a bleak and decisive moment in music, but Lee does so powerfully.

Second hearing


Where can I hear more?

Right here! Embedded are sound clips for each composer’s work:

Johannes Schöllhorn

Shiori Usui

Betsy Jolas

Joanna Lee

Proms premiere – Hugh Wood: Epithalamion


Hugh Wood

Rebecca Bottone (soprano), BBC Symphony Chorus and Orchestra / Sir Andrew Davis (Prom 7)

Duration: 20 minutes

BBC iPlayer link

This piece will shortly be broadcast on BBC4 on July 30, at which point I will provide a new link.

What’s the story behind the piece?

Procession for the wedding of Elizabeth to Frederick VAn engraving by Abraham Hogenberg, c. 1613, used courtesy of the History Today website

Epithalamion, though not one of Hugh Wood’s biggest works, was a mere sixty years in the writing. Wood first started work on it in 1955, only to abandon it, returning to the piece last year.

Epithalamion – an old word for ‘marriage song’ – celebrates the wedding of Princess Elizabeth Stuart, daughter of King James I, and Frederick, Count Palatine, on St Valentine’s Day 1613. The text was written specially for the occasion by John Donne, who used Valentine’s Day as his inspiration for the text.

Wood writes mainly for chorus and orchestra, with soprano and bass soloists (Rebecca Bottone and Nicholas Epton) listed in the Proms programme.

The story takes us through the wedding, as the couple strive to be alone together, to the bliss of the next morning.

Did you know?

Wood writes in largely traditional forms, so as well as a large-scale Symphony he has completed concertos for piano, violin and cello – as well as five celebrated string quartets.

Initial verdict

The celebrations begin with a great swell, the orchestra and choir making a joyful and expansive noise. Yet on first listen from the arena something about Wood’s music did not quite take off in this performance.

That is not a reflection on the quality of the choral writing, nor the brassy fanfares, both of which carry strong echoes of William Walton – who was of course still very active in 1955.

Yet the celebrations did not come through as consistently joyous – perhaps because of the couple striving to get away together – and it was disappointing the soloists were not used more, especially with the quality of Rebecca Bottone’s soprano well in evidence. She comes across fine on the radio but was awkwardly placed in the Hall itself, positioned top left by the percussion. Nicholas Epton, who I assumed to be taking Frederick’s part, had just one tiny cameo.

Wood’s musical language is appealing, with fulsome harmonies and appealing melodies with an upward curve, but although Sir Andrew Davis – to whom the piece is dedicated – gave it maximum input, Epithalamion fell a bit flat. Hopefully the radio broadcast will redress that!

Second hearing


Where can I hear more?

You can read more about Hugh Wood at Music Sales, one of his two publishers, – where you can also listen to a short playlist of his compositions.

Meanwhile, here is a performance of his String Quartet no.4 from the Escher Quartet:

Encore: Hugh Wood – String Quartet No. 4 from Royal Philharmonic Society on Vimeo.

As part of the Royal Philharmonic Society's Encore Scheme, this short film opens up the music of British composer Hugh Wood.

Hugh Wood's Fourth String Quartet was selected as one of the works on the current scheme, which focuses on chamber music.

It was performed for Encore by the Escher String Quartet.

Encore is a scheme in partnership with BBC Radio 3. Encore is supported by the PRS for Music Foundation, The Mercers’ Company, The D’Oyly Carte Charitable Trust and the Idlewild Trust.

Proms premiere – HK Gruber: into the open…

hk gruber

HK Gruber photo by Jon Super

Colin Currie (percussion), BBC Philharmonic Orchestra / John Storgårds (Prom 5)

Duration: 28 minutes

BBC iPlayer link

The Gruber starts at 3:46 on the programme, with commentary beforehand

What’s the story behind the piece?

In an interview with Arcana, Colin Currie revealed the piece to be a memorial to David Drew, who in 1976 was appointed director of publications at the leading music publisher Boosey & Hawkes. Drew became known principally for his work revitalising the output and reputation of the composer Kurt Weill. In his obituary of the director, composer Alexander Goehr wrote for the Guardian how “he prepared scores, travelled Europe and America promoting the works, was instrumental in forming the Weill Foundation (1973) and not only changed, if not created, the public perception of the composer, but contributed to a sea-change in the development of composition in the second half of the 20th century.”

These works included Die Sieben Todsünden (The Seven Deadly Sins). Weill is a composer close to HK Gruber’s heart – and Gruber became an established composer on the Boosey roster.

Currie told Arcana about how, “The piece itself is about thwarted feelings of desperation and loss. It confronts bereavement in an angry and passionate way. It is a violent piece, and an unhappy one too – but it is also extremely lyrical and tender. The person, the subject, is clearly missed – but it is not easy to put into words.”

The Radio 3 broadcast talks of how the performance parts ‘verge on the impossible’ – and not just for the soloist!

Did you know?

Gruber sang with the Vienna Boys’ Choir as a child – and went on to play double bass in the Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra.

Initial verdict

The immediate reaction to this piece is that it will need more than two hearings to fully come to terms with the music within! It is a substantial piece of work, a work of many colours – using the multitude of percussion to the limits of its potential.

A cold emptiness is immediately evident at the beginning, the marimbas in prominence early on, as the size of the structure becomes clear. This is a slow building piece, in keeping with Gruber’s concept of it as a procession – and there are a few signposts that became clear on the first hearing.

At 8’40” in the program link there is a notable change as softly oscillating woodwind offer some consolation, then the brass have more thoughts about 11’32”, the orchestra gathering itself for a powerful onslaught towards the end of the piece – but the end is quiet.

To be honest I did rather lose the thread of the piece from halfway but I suspect that is a ‘listener fault’ rather than anything Gruber has done! Hence the need for more than one further listen.

It should be pointed out the performance standard seems to be incredibly high, despite what Currie was saying about the difficulty!

Second hearing


Where can I hear more?

A good next port of call is BBC Radio 3 program CD Review, who explore recordings of Gruber’s music here – which gives you the ideal opportunity to hear snapshots of his music along with the thoughts of others.

Proms premiere – Cheryl Frances-Hoad


The Beginning of the World by Cheryl Frances-Hoad

The Cardinall’s Musick / Andrew Carwood (Proms Chamber Music 1)

Duration: 10 minutes

BBC iPlayer link

What’s the story behind the piece?

Talking in an interview for this site, Cheryl Frances-Hoad explains:

“The Cardinall’s Musick wanted a piece for eight voices (double SATB choir) (soprano-alto-tenor-bass) that was a homage to Tallis, and about 7 minutes long (I ended up writing a piece that’s closer to 9 minutes). They suggested some words (I eventually selected my own) but were otherwise completely free about how I should approach the commission.

Tallis lived in Greenwich towards the end of his life, which lead me on to reading about the refinements of timekeeping and the calendar during his lifetime, which then lead on to discovering that there was a major astrological event that happened whilst he was alive…which came to symbolize (to me) the massive changes that occurred during Tallis’s lifetime (including for instance the Reformation)…which lead to discovering Tycho Brahe’s (A Danish astronomer) ‘Treatise on the Great Comet of 1577’….

Read the full interview here

Did you know?

Cheryl was chosen as a featured composer on BBC Radio 3’s Composer of the Week (‘Five under 35, March 2015)

Initial verdict

The first and immediately striking thing about From the Beginning of the World was the relevance of the words to today’s climate. In a week where NASA received ground breaking pictures of Pluto and Charon this tale of an earlier astronomical event – the ‘comet with a very long tail’ resonated strongly, especially with its talk of ‘Mighty and destructive wind storms’, ‘Poisonings of the air’ and ‘Terrible earthquakes’.

Cheryl Frances-Hoad’s music only enhanced the dramatic impact. Written as a homage to Tallis its acappella setting carried the same freedom through the air – but here the harmonies were daring, rich with added notes, the most distinctive melodies tending to use wide leaps and drops. This heightened the feeling of unease – especially when the tritone was used to highlight the ‘great wars and bloodsheddings’.

The end of the text is curious, the author questioning suddenly that the comet might not destroy the earth after all – but the damage has been done in all the worrying beforehand, and it was on this that Frances-Hoad’s music really made its mark.

The performance, subtly directed by Andrew Carwood, was one of clarity and pure intensity.

Second hearing


Where can I hear more?

Cheryl has a Soundcloud site, where you can hear another of her works for choir, This is A Blessing: